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Mount Zion Temple loses its last Holocaust survivor, Erwin Farkas

Holocaust survivor Erwin Farkas photographed at Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul in 2013.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News file photo

The oldest synagogue in the upper Midwest has lost their last Holocaust survivor and one of the last in the entire state of Minnesota. Erwin Farkas was a Jewish man from Romania who moved to Minnesota after the war. He died this year at 94 years old.

Farkas was one of the few survivors of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps. His death comes weeks before Holocaust Remembrance day, which marks the liberation of the complex during World War II and memorializes the millions of Jews and other victims who were killed by the Nazi regime in Germany.

Farkas was only 15 years old when he was brought to the concentration camp with his brother, three sisters, parents and grandfather. He and his brother would be the only ones of his family sent there to make it out alive. While awaiting assessment, he noticed two lines form: one toward the camp and the other to the crematorium.

Erwin Farkas, above, in the front row on the far right. He's surrounded by his family sometime in 1939 outside their home in a Romanian village. Erwin's older brother Zoltan is in the front row on the far left.
Courtesy photo

He figured out that he needed to be of a certain age to avoid being sent to death. So, he lied to the guards and was sent to forced labor with his brother where they were imprisoned until the end of the war. He chronicled his liberation from Birkenau in a play about survivors, which was performed at his synagogue of Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul.

Mount Zion’s lead Rabbi, Adam Spilker, spoke about Farkas and the impact he had on his congregation.

“He was a really gentle soul,” he said. “He had this ability to just roll up his sleeves, point gently to the numbers that were desecrating his body to this day from being in Auschwitz and tell his story.”

Holocaust education was incredibly important to Farkas. He regularly spoke to classrooms at Mount Zion about his past.

“He realized, and it took awhile, that he was able to help people realize what inhumanity people can get to and what we need to do to prevent that— how to be upstanders.” Spilker said.

Erwin Farkas
Erwin Farkas was 10 years old when World War II began in 1939.
Courtesy photo

According to a survey from 2020, 53 percent of younger Minnesotans did not know that 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust. Spilker says they’re trying to combat the loss of these firsthand voices by having the children and grandchildren of survivors continue the tradition of telling their story.

“But I can tell you it is not the same and it is harder, and people forget,” Spilker said.

Despite having his family, many of his friends, and his home taken from him, Farkas still maintained an optimistic view on life.

“Thankfully, not everything can be stolen from a human being,” Spilker said.

A memorial will be held Sunday, Jan. 28 at Mount Zion Temple, 1300 Summit Ave. in St Paul, at 3:00 p.m. Farkas has no surviving family so the memorial will be open to Mount Zion congregants and others to honor his memory.

A one-hour play called “Survivors,” which features different personal stories of the Holocaust will have one more performance on Sunday at 1 p.m. at Six Points Theater in St. Paul.